I wrote about my anticipation for Hells in my summer season preview. To recap, Hells first hit my radar in 2008 when doing my first season preview. 2008 happened to be the year Kaiba aired, a Maasaki Yuasa weird artsy series I utterly adored. While doing research for the autumn season preview, I saw there was a new OVA called Hells Angels that was supposed to be coming out soon. It looked artsy and was by Madhouse. Kaiba was artsy and was by Madhouse. Clearly this would be the next Kaiba! #seasonpreviewlogic
This was before I knew how to properly research season previews, so I missed the rather important point that it was only screening at an arthouse cinema in Japan and that was it. I had been keeping tabs on when it was going to be released on home video, but it had apparently disappeared off the face of the earth after that festival screening. Did it even air? Was the trailer just some pilot animation that was never made into a full film? But here we are, 4 years later, and it’s finally out. I’m not sure why it took this long. Did they just forget about it until one intern found the file behind the back of the Madhouse corporate sofa and a boss went “oh yeah, that thing, we should probably release that”. Reviewing Hells helps me close a chapter on my anime fandom career. Now we just need someone to make the rest of Satoshi Kon’s final film The Dream Machine. Oh, and for an expanded version of Cencoroll. And a second season of Durarara. And a magical flying potato that dispenses concubines.
Anyway, Hells. The story is about Linne, a regular old schoolgirl who’s late for school and running with a piece of toast in her mouth. Then she’s hit by a truck and ends up in hell. Not exactly the best start to her day. She has to attend the Hell School for Prim and Proper Ladies, a variety of demon ladies with various gothic dresses or alternatively lavishly decorated pubic hair. Oh, and the principal is Elvis-sorry, I mean Helvis.
The style of hell is very much that cartoony gothic you see in Tim Burton or, to bring a more anime example to the table, Soul Eater, and it’s a style I’m rather fond of. It works well in Hells because they know full well how ridiculous the story is and so ham it up to eleven. Unlike the very crisp and clean animation style of Soul Eater though, Hells goes for a very pencil sketchy look. It’s not something I’m normally a fan of, but Hells pulls it off perfectly. The style goes well with its bonkers hyperactivity and over-indulgence in exaggeration. Its boundless energy is catching, and the art style brings that across perfectly. If you’re watching this anime, you’re watching it for the art style, because that’s where the fun lies. Because you’re probably not going to watch it for the story…
After 45 minutes of this nearly 2 hour movie, I was all ready to call it my anime of the year. The pacing is frantic but coherent and action scene blends in well with calmer scenes. The introduction to the new character’s in Linne’s classroom is hyper and crazy, but you then get a downer scene of her trying to cope with where she has ended up. This is followed by the fight scene with the literally heartless Stealer and the gatekeepers, which flows into plot development and character interaction scenes with the classmates and student council and so on. Each scene has a purpose and moves the relatively simple plot forward.
Then I’m not quite sure what happened, but my guess is the lead writer was eaten by alligators and replaced by some hobo who had gotten through the first few pages of the bible. I don’t really want to spoil events, but suddenly in pops Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, 3 of which are characters we’ve already been introduced to. There were no hints given earlier on in the story that they were supposed to be these biblical figures. It just randomly decided to attribute these characteristics to each person. Adam is a totally new character who randomly shows up halfway through the movie with absolutely no warning and becomes an important character. Then there’s Mario, whose purpose in the movie I don’t get at all. He’s just some dude who yells a lot. I’m not kidding when I say he probably gets the most screentime out of anyone in the second half of the movie, despite his actions having limited to no effect on the events of the story. If you removed him completely, it wouldn’t really change, except perhaps less shouting and an overall improvement of the quality of the movie.
I’m not necessarily against the plot points in the second half of the movie, and part of me appreciates the audacity of the set pieces and dramatics. I even genuinely liked the ending, in all its cheesy sentimentalism. But a good hour of that movie could be cut down to about 10 minutes. It’s especially exasperating when the plot doesn’t appear to be advancing through all this yelling and self-doubt. The main theme of the movie is meant to be self-doubt, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got to hammer it into our heads over and over again. It’s incredibly frustrating because you can see how this movie could be amazing if it was just an hour long. For as much as I love that Madhouse are willing to give directors such creative freedom with absolutely no prospect for making their money back, there’s a reason you need a strict editor sometimes.
I feel rather conflicted about writing negative stuff about Hells though, because it’s astonishing that it was even made in the first place. It bears many resemblances to Redline in this regard. Madhouse and their utter disregard for making a profit just so they can give directors free reign to experiment. Hells is certainly no Redline, but it’s born from the same kind of production environment. It’s the same place that saw directors like Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Hosada rise up. It will eventually drive Madhouse into the dirt, but for the sake of art I’d love to see them keep trying. Hells may not have worked, but there are flashes of genius here. I was about to say that I’d love to see what this director works on next, but we’ve already seen that. He was brought under the creative branches at JC Staff. That anime in question was Kill Me Baby.